If you’ve ever walked through Ferrell Commons on campus, you’ve likely passed the dark doors of Knights Pantry. It’s hard to tell but there is plenty of light inside, along with necessities like food, clothing and personal hygiene items, free for UCF students who need them.
But behind the dark doors and rows of supplies there’s one person in charge of making sure everything is running smoothly — the bright, shining light that is Johnna Gracik. As manager of Knights Pantry, she has seen students needing support come and go through the years.
“I’ve always been very interested in helping people and supporting people in the best way that I can.”
Slated to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work on Saturday, Gracik aims to take her experiences helping at UCF out into the real world as she pursues her dream of becoming a state representative.
“I’ve always been very interested in helping people and supporting people in the best way that I can,” Gracik says. “Through social work, I saw a route to do that.”
As a first-year student, Gracik discovered Knights Pantry when a student in her Social Power and Inequality class mentioned how she used the on-campus resource to help her to survive day-to-day.
Gracik became immediately interested since she was looking for a way to get involved and give back. After doing some research, she began volunteering at Knights Pantry in October 2015 and became manager one year later.
In that time, she’s learn how to develop relationships with sponsors, process and distribute donations, and become a counselor of sorts to clients, all while leading a team of 80 volunteers each week during the fall and spring semesters.
On a personal level, Gracik has been most touched by working with homeless students, sometimes even helping them search the closet in Knights Pantry for the right business attire to confidently wear to an interview with potential employers.
“We have a couple of students who are homeless and know my assistant manager and me by name,” Gracik says. “They come in and spend time with us, talk to us about the things that are going on in their lives, if they’re having medical issues and how to better support them.”
“By getting involved [with Knights Pantry] I’ve recognized there’s not a specific face to hunger. It can be anybody.”
But one of the biggest lessons she’s learned at Knights Pantry is anyone you meet might be struggling to find their next meal.
“By getting involved [with Knights Pantry] I’ve recognized there’s not a specific face to hunger. It can be anybody,” Gracik says. “We see a complete variety of demographics, of just different identities, that walk through the door.”
Reaching the Community
In January, Gracik began helping at the Orlando United Assistance Center to assist Pulse survivors and their families in the aftermath of the 2016 nightclub shooting.
Gracik was nervous going into the experience because, although she’s always wanted to help people, she said she hasn’t had to deal with any traumatic experiences herself. But just as working at Knights Pantry broadened her perspective on hunger and food insecurity, Gracik’s time at OUAC opened her eyes to how trauma affects every individual.
“We do have traumatic events that happen every day. They’re not always astronomically huge events.”
“We do have traumatic events that happen every day,” Gracik says. “They’re not always astronomically huge events, like a mass shooting. … One person’s trauma doesn’t look the same way as [another] person’s, but there are still blueprints you can take to help that person, to be the support system to that person.”
Shaping the Future
While pursuing her social work studies, Gracik’s initial plan was to work with children directly. But through her time at UCF and community involvement, she’s shifted her focus to where she sees real change happening — through developing policy.
Gracik says one day she hopes to become a state representative developing legislation focused on the best practices to assist people, with an emphasis on mental health.
“There’s no one size fits all for things. Everyone has a different background, everyone has a different experience.”
“[My work at Knights Pantry] informs what I want to do because, with policy, there’s a lack of understanding that there’s no one size fits all for things.” Gracik says. “Everyone has a different background, everyone has a different experience.”
While Gracik still has a way to go before reaching her goals, she’s already made her mark leading others.
“The thing that I value most about being a leader,” she said, “is seeing the other people that I’m working with, the people that I’m supporting, the people that I am leading, being able to lead other people. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from it.”